Panov A.N. Foreign Policy Priorities of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Part III)

Foreign Policy Priorities of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Part III)

A.N. Panov

("The Chinese threat" and "Russian chance")

As noted, the government of S. Abe is most concerned with the "Chinese threat" and the uncertainty that the US will provide armed support to Japan in the event of an open conflict between Tokyo and Beijing over disputed islands.

In an editorial, the New York Times on April 20, 2015, that is, on the eve of the official visit of the head of the Japanese government to the United States, admitted that the Japanese remained afraid that Washington could make an unexpected step in its relations with Beijing without first informing Japan.

This fear, although its degree has somewhat dropped after the April summit in Washington, nevertheless continues to be present. Analytical materials, such as those prepared by Jeffrey Bader, director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council in the first administration of Barack Obama, do not go unnoticed in Japan. In his report, he believes that "treating China as an enemy and potential adversary will not benefit the security of the US and its allies"[1].

At a press conference on the results of the first 18 years since the official visit of the US President to Tokyo on April 25, 2014, B. Obama, referring to the problem of Senkaku Island, stated the American position as follows.

Assuring that the obligations under the security treaty extend to all territories under the administration of Japan, including Senkaku, he nevertheless said the following:

"In our discussions, I emphasized to Prime Minister Abe the importance of resolving this issue peacefully - not escalating the situation, keeping the rhetoric low, not taking provocative actions, and trying to determine how both Japan and China can work cooperatively together". The president did not forget to add that the US has "strong relations with China"[2].

It can be said that this position of Washington satisfied Tokyo by no more than 50%.

Washington regularly stresses the need to resolve the Chinese dispute with Japan and a number of ASEAN countries in the South China Sea and the East China Sea by peaceful means, in accordance with international law, without coercive or unilateral measures[3].

Still, Tokyo's perseverance in explaining to the American partners the "Chinese threat" gave a definite result. At a press conference following the visit of S. Abe to the US, the American president, at the request of the Japanese, confirming the US commitment to protect Japan, did not ask Tokyo and Beijing to build trust relationship and solve problems peacefully[4].

In this regard, the reputed Japanese magazine Sentaku in the May issue of 2015 concluded that the meeting of S. Abe and B. Obama in Washington "can be regarded as successful in terms of pointing out the direction of the Japanese-American alliance against China. The more Beijing, according to the magazine's conclusion, is ready to toughen its one-party dictatorship and take actions that are seen as ignoring international law, the more important the Japanese-American union is".

At the same time, Tokyo drew attention to the fact that following the results of the US-China strategic and economic dialogue held in Washington in June 2015, about 200 documents on cooperation were signed, including in the field of security, environmental protection, investment and finance.

Within the framework of the "Chinese threat", Tokyo is very concerned about the build-up of a strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing, which, according to many Japanese analytical forecasts, can adopt an anti-Japanese orientation.

Moods in Japanese government circles that can be characterized as close to panic were caused by identical Russian and Chinese assessments of Japanese militarism during the Second World War and a joint celebration in Moscow and Beijing of the anniversary of the end of the war in Europe and Asia.

The press and political analysts of the legal conservative trend declared that these measures can be regarded as an intention "to put pressure on Japan", because "in fact, both countries won by accident", and the Chinese leadership, declaring China a winner country, uses this to strengthen its power[5].

Such a simultaneous distortion of both history and modernity did not go unnoticed. Cha President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping stressed that the war with Japan is "a heroic chapter in the modern history of the country. It awakened awareness of unity in the Chinese nation to a height never seen before"[6].

During negotiations with Barack Obama at the White House on April 28, 2015, S. Abe, while not excluding the possibility of China and Russia alliance aimed at strengthening their anti-Japanese activity, which could lead to destabilization of the situation in Asia, strongly opposed the emergence of a situation where the two super-powers China and Russia will create an excessive confrontational position. Then he added: "I will continue the dialogue with President Putin", making it clear that one of the goals of such a dialogue is to prevent a Russian-Chinese anti-Japanese alliance[7].

According to information received by Japanese media from sources in the Japanese Foreign Ministry, S. Abe's statement sounded unexpected for the Americans, since it was not included in the agenda of the talks. B. Obama, according to the same sources, did not give his direct consent or approval to S. Abe's dialogue with the Russian president, but stressed the need for Japan to act in Russian direction without violating the common position of the West[8]. S. Abe listened to the opinion of the "senior ally" and did not go to celebrate Victory Day in Moscow.

However, the trip of Secretary of State John Kerry to Sochi in May to attend a meeting with Vladimir Putin reinforced the Japanese leader's intention to invite the Russian president to visit Japan in late 2015, which did not take place as planned at the end of 2014 due to "Ukrainian and Crimean events". On May 21 S. Abe met with the State Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin, whom the Japanese side did not include in the sanctions list, unlike the United States and several other Western countries, and who arrived in Tokyo to participate in the opening of the traditional festival of Russian culture in Japan. This alarmed the White House. An immediate negative reaction followed. The Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel at a press conference in Washington, specifically addressing the Japanese leadership, made a few statements. Firstly he denied that the visit of J. Kerry to Sochi and his meeting with Vladimir Putin indicates any change in US policy towards Russia in connection with the Ukrainian crisis, and that Washington is confident that the government of S. Abe "is committed to the principle of not dealing with Russia as usual in the current circumstances"[9]. Such a rude and frank pressure on the Japanese government and the prime minister personally, as one might expect, had the opposite effect. He decided to enlist the support of European countries.

At the G7 summit in Germany on June 7-8, during the discussion of the Chinese and Russian issues, he said: "We must not allow China and Russia unite. That is why the dialogue with Russia is necessary". And he intends to carry out this dialogue. As reported by "informed Japanese sources", Angela Merkel and François Hollande more than others supported the spirit of the Japanese prime minister, but Barack Obama thought it best to remain silent in this situation.

After that, Shinzo Abe took action. On June 24, he had a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin, during which the Japanese side asked about the possibility of a meeting between the two leaders in Tokyo at the end of 2015. This was followed by visits to Moscow of Japan's head of the National Security Council Shotaro Yachi, advisor to the Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida on September 20-22, who not only held talks with Sergey Lavrov, but also participated in the 11th meeting of intergovernmental bilateral commission on trade and economic cooperation.

On the 70th, anniversary, UN General Assembly session in New York Shinzo Abe had a meeting with Vladimir Putin during which the two leaders agreed to continue talks on a peace treaty and to work on the visit of the Russian president to Japan in a reasonable period for both sides.

However, even though Shinzo Abe more than once invited Vladimir Putin to pay a visit to Japan, the Japanese side avoided talking about the specific date.

As the Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during an interview with the media of Mongolia, Japan and China on 12 April 2016, "Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe several times said to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he is thinking about dates"[10].

One has the impression that the Japanese side tries to maneuver. On the one hand, it was obvious that it was indecent to refuse already made invitation. On the other hand, it was necessary to take into account the negative attitude of the US towards the implementation of the visit of Russian President to Japan, which obviously would be perceived as "a violation of Western solidarity" in avoiding contacts with the Russian leader.

In this situation, the Japanese prime minister made a "turning movement". According to Lavrov, from his part "was expressed interest to visit the Russian Federation" and "he was offered a specific time frame"[11] and as the place for the meeting of the two leaders one of the Russian regions was designated. Subsequently, it was agreed that the meeting will take place in Sochi on May 6, 2016.

Despite the fact, that Abe's trip to Sochi and not to Moscow has less significant character in the diplomatic hierarchy, it is better than Vladimir Putin's visit to Tokyo, because such meeting would have provoked dissatisfaction of the White House. It was followed by Obama's phone call to Abe on February 9, 2016 and the US President once again "recommended him not to meet" with Vladimir Putin as it was "wrong time for this". Nevertheless, the Japanese Prime minister did not give up on his decision. Realizing the failure of attempts to exert pressure on the head of the Japanese government and in order to "save face" of the US president, the White House representative made a statement that "there is nothing to worry about and you can go there once". Sergey Lavrov described the unceremonious American intervention in the sovereign affairs of his ally as "outrageous behavior" and concluded that Japan "is not entirely independent in its foreign policy activities, as it moved towards joining the Western sanctions against Russia, contrary to its national interests"[12].

The root cause of the American intervention-pressure was pointed out by the former senior Japanese diplomat, now head of the Center for International Studies of Kyoto Sangyo University Kazuhiko Tōgō. "The US, - he said - does not want to develop normal relations between Japan and Russia"[13].

It would be simplistic to assume that the American "advices" and "wishes" are ignored in Tokyo.

Shinzo Abe has repeatedly promised to Barack Obama to support "close connection" with him in relation to Putin's visit to Japan[14]. The Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stressed that Japan "will be in close cooperation and contact with the United States in regard to diplomacy towards Russia"[15].

It seems that a not insignificant role in the desire to please both those who are disposed to support his commitment to dialogue with Putin, and at the same time supporters of a hardline approach to Russia, was played by Shinzo Abe's several decisions. At the end of December 2015 he appointed Toyohisa Kozuki to the post of the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, who is known for constructive approach in doing business with Russia, and to "balance" the situation at the end of January 2016 he created a post of the special representative for relations with Russia, led by former Ambassador to the Russian Federation Chikahito Harada, proven supporter of the "fundamental policy" towards Russia (it is known that he, for example, did not recommend Shinzo Abe to take part in the opening of the Olympic games in Sochi. Japanese Prime Minister nevertheless did not agree with his "advice" and had a friendly meeting with Vladimir Putin in Sochi).

One way or the other, the "summit preparation train", not without complications and delays, gradually moved to the destination.

It seems the Japanese political circles and personally S. Abe were greatly impressed by a successful political and military operation of the Russian air and space forces in Syria. The head of the Japanese government said that without the participation of Moscow it was impossible to solve the Syrian problem and a number of other acute international problems.

According to the head of the Japanese government, on January 22, his telephone conversation with V. Putin took place, during which they exchanged views on the situation on the Korean peninsula, the Middle East, Syria and Ukraine. He said that both leaders agreed to advance work towards preparation of his unofficial visit to Russia at an appropriate time before Putin's visit to Japan"[16].

Speaking in the parliament with a keynote address on January 26, 2016, S. Abe confirmed his intention to maintain a direct conversation with the Russian president.

"The territorial issue", he said, "is a problem that can not be solved without a dialogue between the leaders. We will continue to use various opportunities for dialogue with President Putin". "We will work step-by-step to strengthen relations in various areas to resolve any problems and with the object to conclude a peace treaty."

In early January 2016, vice-chairman of the ruling liberal-democratic party Masahiko Kōmura was received in Moscow by the chairman of the State Duma Sergey Naryshkin and passed through him Shinzo Abe's message to President Vladimir Putin.

In February, a major meeting was held in Tokyo on Russian-Japanese trade and economic cooperation, with the participation of Minister of Trade and Industry Denis Manturov.

In March, another round of talks took place on the issues of the peace treaty at the level of deputy foreign ministers, where this time, Chikahito Harada, the special representative for relations with Russia participated from the Japanese side and Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov from the Russian side.

Finally, on April 15-17 Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov visited Japan. In the course of his consultations with the Minister Fumio Kishida, they discussed a wide range of topics, but the central place was dedicated to the top level meeting preparation in Sochi.

Not a single meeting between the leaders of Russia and Japan was prepared for such a long time, was accompanied by such a serious influence of very complex foreign policy circumstances, attracted so much attention both in each country and beyond them, preserved the intrigue of the possible content of the conversations than a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Sochi on May 6, 2016.

On the eve of the meeting, many suggestions were made about the outcome of the conversation between the Russian leader, whose country was under US and European sanctions, and the head of the Japanese government, who is a member of the "Western community" and the chairman of the G7 meeting on May 26-27.

Mainly pessimistic assessments were predicted, based on the fact that the Japanese prime minister, showing his "Western solidarity", will not put forward proposals that could improve Japanese-Russian relations, especially to mitigate sanctions, although in the Japanese version they were much less severe than American and European. Moreover, no progress was expected in the positions of the parties on the territorial issue. "Optimists", who were in the minority, did not exclude that the conversation of the two leaders will be held generally in a friendly atmosphere, as both leaders have feelings of personal disposition towards each other, but nothing more.

Given such sentiments, the outcome of the Sochi meeting, as it can be claimed with good reason, produced such an unexpected and resonant effect that many politicians and analysts found it difficult to give them a comprehensive, objective assessment.

Analyzing results of the agreements that were reached, one should pay attention to the following.

First of all, the constructive approach is impressive on both sides, but, first and foremost, from the Japanese side, aimed at bringing the relations of the two countries out of the state of stagnation, and to give them a new, significant dynamic. In recent times, especially after the beginning of the Russian-Western crisis, none of the leaders of the "Western community" has demonstrated such a freehearted friendly approach to dealing with Moscow and personally with President Vladimir Putin.

Even a simple list of agreements that were reached is more characteristic for summarizing the full-format official visit than for an unofficial meeting, which was limited in time, albeit 3,5 hours long.

Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe discussed the whole spectrum of bilateral relations and key problems of international relations and reached an agreement on very important areas of Russian-Japanese cooperation[17].

In the sphere of political dialogue, an unprecedented schedule of relations at the highest level is planned. Only in 2016, the leaders of the two countries are scheduled to meet in July at a meeting of the ASEM partners, in September at the G20 meeting, in October at the UN GA session, and in November at the APEC forum. S. Abe accepted the invitation to take part in the Far East Economic Forum in Vladivostok in early September. The possible dates of the Russian president's visit to Japan in 2016 were also discussed.

An agreement was reached to continue consultations at the level of the Security Councils of both countries.

Especially, as V. Putin stressed, in the part concerning strengthening cooperation in ensuring regional security. On the Russian side, a proposal was made to resume dialogue on the "2+2" formula - the foreign ministers and defense ministers of the two countries.

Negotiations will be continued in a regular format at the level of foreign ministers and their deputies (the next meeting between them was set for June 2016).

Closer contacts will be planned in the UN Security Council between Russian and Japanese representatives, who currently participate in its work during the two-year term.

In June 2016, the Chairman of the State Duma opened in Tokyo another festival of Russian culture in Japan, and the possibility of a visit to Japan by the Chairman of the Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko, is being considered. It should be noted that both politicians are included by almost all Western countries in "blacklists".

In the sphere of economic cooperation, the most important of all is the eight-point plan that was proposed by S. Abe. This plan is similar in some respects to the plan that he put forward during his first premiership, which demonstrates the deep thoughtfulness and consistent interest of the Japanese leadership in developing trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation with Russia.

"Shinzo Abe's plan" is designed to overcome the decline in trade and economic indicators in the cooperation of the two countries. In 2015, goods turnover fell by 30% and descended to the level of $21 billion. In terms of investment in the Russian economy, Japan is on the eighth place with an amount of $110 billion.

The plan provides for a significant increase in the supply of Russian energy resources to Japan - oil, gas, coal, including the accelerated implementation of the Yamal gas field development project. It is planned to increase production capacity within the framework of the Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2 projects. In addition, it is intended to increase the productivity of the fields, to establish refining of petroleum products.

The construction of a factory for the production of automobile tires, carried out by the company Bridgestone, is at the final stage, and Mazda company is preparing for the construction of the plant for the production of automobile engines.

In the field of agriculture, Mitsubishi is implementing the construction of the world's largest fertilizer plant in the Khabarovsk Krai, and there is also cooperation in the construction of plants for growing vegetables in greenhouses.

According to the "Shinzo Abe's plan", it is suggested to establish active cooperation in the field of medicine and healthcare in order to increase the life expectancy of Russians. It is known that Japan has made considerable progress in this area.

Great prospects exist in the sphere of urban problems solving. Japan is ready to provide knowledge and technical solutions to such problems as the disposal of domestic waste, the organization of traffic, the heating of households in winter. Japan is ready to expand cooperation between small and medium-sized enterprises, help establish business relations between them, create venture projects.

It is supposed to assist in diversifying Russian industrial production by supplying Japanese equipment and increasing the efficiency of production chains.

Japan intends to support Russian projects on industrial development of the Far East. To do this, they are planning to assist in the creation of export industries aimed at the Asia-Pacific market, including agricultural goods, timber processing, processing of seafood. Cooperation in the modernization of seaports and airfields is proposed. Japan is showing great interest in cooperation in nuclear energy, especially with regard to high technology. "Shinzo Abe's plan" also has in mind a significant expansion of exchanges between people - university students, athletes, cultural figures and artists.

Already during the meeting in Sochi, countries agreed to hold a cross-cultural year in 2018 - Year of Japan in Russia and a Year of Russia in Japan. Shinzo Abe emphasized the importance of increase in tourist exchanges, which are still relatively low and in this regard stated that Japan is considering the introduction of specific measures for Russian citizens to facilitate the obtention of a Japanese visa.

Proposing his plan, S. Abe specifically noted that its implementation can contribute to the development of the Russian economy and aims to jump-start Japanese-Russian relations.

Vladimir Putin described the "Shinzo Abe's Plan" as "excellent" and spoke out for the creation of a specific bilateral mechanism for its implementation, for example, within the framework of the intergovernmental committee on trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation. S.Abe agreed with this proposal and immediately appointed people in his administration responsible for the implementation of the "Plan".

The most pressing at the moment international problems were discussed during the Sochi meeting. Furthermore, Vladimir Putin stressed that Russia sees Japan not only as an important partner in the Asia-Pacific region, but also globally.

Shinzo Abe expressed in a spirit, that Russia is a "major player" on the international arena, and expressed hope that it would play a constructive role in relation to the world's problems in various regions of the globe.

In this context, he expressed the wish that Russia should exert influence on armed formations in the east of Ukraine in order to improve the situation and fully implement the Minsk agreements. For his part, the Japanese prime minister assured that he resolutely supports the implementation of the Minsk agreements and personally spoke about this to the president of Ukraine during his April visit to Tokyo.

Vladimir Putin expressed his hope that Japan will continue to draw the attention of the Ukrainian side to the full implementation of all articles of the Minsk agreements.

Shinzo Abe supported the efforts of Russia and the United States to conclude a cessation of arms in Syria and spoke in favor of an even more constructive role of Russia in resolving the Syrian crisis.

Vladimir Putin suggested to Japan to play a more active role in helping to solve humanitarian problems in Syria.

Abe's drew attention to a proposal to build the Russia-Japan cooperation in the development of the Central Asian region. In October 2015, Japanese Prime Minister for the first time visited five Central Asian countries and promised to provide extensive aid in the development of transport and trade, since, in his view, this region is a bridge between East and West. However, at the same time it is also a matter of concern because of the possibility of increase of terrorist activities and the expansion of drug trafficking in these countries. It can be assumed that the offer of cooperation with Russia in Central Asia has in mind a certain reduction of Chinese activity in the region.

Japan is particularly concerned about the growth of the narcotic threat from Afghanistan and its "bundle" with the situation in Central Asia. In this regard, Shinzo Abe highlighted the importance of Japanese-Russian cooperation in countering this threat.

The Russian side expressed satisfaction with the cooperation already under way to counteract the Afghan narcotic threat and expressed readiness to expand such cooperation by connecting the Central Asian countries.

The countries recognized that the problems of security, terrorism, drug trafficking are relevant for the Asia-Pacific region and highly appreciated the cooperation between Russia's border troops and Japan's maritime security forces and welcomed the planned bilateral meeting in Moscow in 2016 on the problem of countering terrorism.

The Russian president expressed satisfaction with the "complete coincidence" of positions of the two countries on the North Korean nuclear missile problem.

There were few expectations that the meeting of the two leaders would lead to the achievement of any concrete agreement on the problem of concluding a peace treaty.

The more unexpected was S. Abe's statement after his half-hour one on one meeting with Vladimir Putin, which was devoted to the discussion of this problem. Speaking to media representatives, he said that he proposed a new approach to solving the problem of the Kurile Islands, which is free from any past ideas, and that Vladimir Putin agreed with his position, in the way that "he feels that we are moving towards a breakthrough in the frozen negotiations on the peace treaty"[18]. The press secretary of the Russian President of Dmitry Peskov confirmed that "the theme of the Kuril Islands was raised in a very constructive way", from which it can be concluded that Vladimir Putin really positively accepted the new ideas of the Japanese prime minister and they can form the basis for a specific discussion during consultations at the level of deputy foreign ministers of the two countries.

Neither the Japanese nor the Russian side disclosed the content of the "new ideas" of S. Abe to the solution of the territorial problem, which caused the emergence of numerous assumptions and guesses. At the same time, the Deputy Secretary-General of the Cabinet of Ministers of Japan Hiroshige Sekō explained that Japan's principled position on the territorial issue had not changed, and noted the intention of the Japanese government to simultaneously negotiate a peace treaty and implement economic cooperation projects.

Summarizing the results of the Sochi meeting, one can not help but see that in many ways it has become an essential starting point for putting the bilateral relations on the track of dynamic, progressive development.

Despite the fact that Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin did not discuss the subject of withdrawal of Japanese sanctions, the specific arrangements about raising the level and intensity of the political dialogue, the early establishment of a mechanism for implementing versatile "Abe's plan", activation of cultural and human exchanges, a more regular discussions and consultations on major international issues and, finally, conduction of negotiations on a peace treaty on the basis of "new ideas" are a convincing evidence that Japan actually stepped out from a "united anti-Russian sanctions front" of the US and European countries.

This undoubtedly manifested the political courage and determination of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who, despite the pressure of the White House, opted not for "Western solidarity", but for national interests of Japan.

The Sochi meeting identified promising areas of cooperation and interaction between Russia and Japan in the current complex international situation. At the same time, a lot will depend on how effectively and quickly the agreements reached will be implemented.


[2] Kyodo News International. February 14, 2014.

[3] Mainichi Shimbun, April 29, 2015.

[4] See Yomiuri Shimbun on March 13, 2015, and also an article by Masaki Nishihara, a member of the Board of the Research Institute for Peace and Security in the newspaper Sankei Shimbun on March 15, 2015

[5] The People's Daily (Rénmín Rìbào), March 15, 2015.

[6] Mainichi Shimbun, July 7, 2015.

[7] Yomiuri Shimbun May 19, 2015.

[8] The Japan Times, May 23, 2015.

[9] Yomiuri Shimbun, July 11, 2015.

[10] April 13, 2016

[11] Ibid. This happened at the meeting of two leaders on September 28 in New York

[12] ibidem

[13] Vzglyad. Delovaya Gazeta, January 23, 2016.

[14] Yomiuri Shimbun, November 18, 2015.

[15] Japan Times. February 24, 2016.

[16] Asahi Shimbun, January 27, 2016.

[17] The content of the meeting is given on the basis of a statement on its results by Sergey Lavrov and Deputy Secretary General of the Cabinet of Ministers Hiroshige Seko in front of media representatives.

[18] Mainichi Shimbun, May 7, 2016.